Overlay of Population
An overlay of the Congressional districts with the changes in population for the 2020 Census. Credit: Susan Bigelow / CTNEwsJunkie

After two meetings and four public hearings, Connecticut’s 2021 Reapportionment Committee disbanded Wednesday when, as expected, it missed its deadline to draft plans for new voting districts. It will now reshape itself into an expanded commission.

The committee was sure to miss its Sept. 15 deadline before it even got to work on the once-in-a-decade task of remapping the state’s General Assembly and congressional districts. The census data on which the maps must be based were delayed for months by the Census Bureau, which struggled to conduct its nationwide population count during the pandemic.

The state constitution, which spells out the redistricting process, includes contingencies for missed deadlines. The committee, made up of four Democrats and four Republicans, will be replaced by a commission that will elect a ninth member. 

“This committee is constitutionally dissolved tomorrow at midnight,” the panel’s co-chair, Rep. Gregg Haddad, said at the conclusion of its fourth and final public hearing Tuesday night. “The commission will, I think, very quickly be reformed. They will have some work to do right away adding a ninth member and then proceeding with the hard work of drawing maps.”

Ten years ago, when the last redistricting committee failed to meet its Sept. 15 deadline, the commission unanimously appointed Kevin Johnston, a former Democratic lawmaker and state auditor of public accounts, to serve as its ninth member.

The commission also comes with new goal posts. Unlike the committee, the expanded panel’s maps do not need to be approved by a vote of the full legislature. The commission has until Nov. 30 to remap the districts or — as was the case with 2011’s congressional map — the state Supreme Court takes a role in approving the new district lines. 

By most measures, the panel lags behind the process of prior decades as a result of the pandemic delays. This year’s committee departed from a tradition of holding public hearings in each of the state’s five congressional districts. Faced with the looming deadline and an ongoing public health crisis, the group held in-person hearings in Hartford, Norwich, and Shelton then a virtual hearing Tuesday night. 

Despite the time crunch, more tools exist this year for the general public to draft their own district lines for consideration. Throughout the hearings and meetings, Haddad, a Democrat from Mansfield, and Sen. Kevin Kelly, a Stratford Republican who co-chairs the panel, have encouraged the public to use online resources like Districtr or Dave’s Redistricting. Both sites allow users to create maps while balancing the populations of their own proposed districts. 

On Thursday, the Census Bureau also released its population data in an easier-to-use and sortable format available on its website. In a press release, Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, urged more people to take an interest in a process conducted by elected officials and often used to craft safe political districts. 

“Redistricting will determine the voting power of our neighborhoods, towns, and cities for the next ten years,” Quickmire said. “That’s why it’s so important that we, the people, have a say in how our maps are drawn. When the people are involved, we can be sure that maps are drawn to benefit us, not the politicians.”

However, throughout the four public hearings, lawmakers on the panel heard sometimes disparate ideas on what a beneficial map should look like. 

For instance, the vast majority of testimony during Tuesday night’s virtual hearing came from residents of Wilton, who by and large do not want to continue sharing representation with the city of Norwalk in the 143rd House District. 

The district, which Norwalk Democrat Stephanie Thomas won in 2020 but was previously held by Republican Gail Lavielle, is politically competitive. But residents said the seat is at odds with its own priorities. 

Peter Wrampe, chair of Wilton’s Republican town committee, told the redistricting panel he believed Thomas has tried to represent the interests of both Norwalk and Wilton, but expected it was a stressful balance.

“They are torn between and betwixt in some of the decisions and votings they have to make. This really shouldn’t be. One can’t serve two masters simultaneously. We all know that,” Wrampe said. “Wilton and Norwalk face substantially different issues.”

Lavielle, who occupied the seat for a decade before declining to seek reelection, described trying to represent both towns as “schizophrenic.” During controversial votes, she said she often felt like one town or the other would “throw [her] out.”

“It reached the height of absurdity for me. Anybody with a decent conscience who is absolutely intent on representing their constituents well is tormented by the situation and asking one person to do it just doesn’t work,” Lavielle said.

Several Wilton residents asked the redistricting panel to place the town in a district with other, more rural communities in the area rather than Norwalk. 

The change would group the town with communities of similar priorities. It would also likely create more politically safe legislative districts, an outcome which other residents told the redistricting panel it should avoid.

In written testimony, Elsa Peterson Obuchowski of the Norwalk League of Women Voters, said safe districts lead to elections where candidates run unopposed or face only weak challenges and voters do not feel they have an impact on the resulting contests.

“People figure they know who’s going to win, so they don’t bother voting,” Obuchowski wrote. “As a result, no votes are cast for all the other candidates on the ballot—from President of the United States to U.S. Senate, to U.S. House, to Governor, to State Senate. District lines should not be about incumbent protection; they should give voters a choice.”